McGinnis: A little looneyWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Yes, his name really is Andy Looney.
It seems too perfect for this quirky designer of numerous off-the-wall and wildly entertaining tabletop games to have such an offbeat name, one that can even act as a riff on a famously cantankerous television commentator. But in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star, Looney — creator of the wildly popular card game “Fluxx” and many more titles — set the record straight.
“My whole life, people have asked. I was born a Looney. I love my name. And I do feel that having the name I grew up with helped craft my personality. With a name like mine, you either grow up loving it and really making it part of you, or you change it.”
Watching Looney at work, it’s clear which path he chose. When he’s explaining one of his games to an audience — whether live or via one of his YouTube videos — his manic enthusiasm is infectious and fun. He makes you want to play just by sheer force of will. He’s so perfect in his role, in fact, that it comes as a bit of a surprise that he became a game designer almost by accident.
“My vision for myself in college was that I would become a writer. And an early short story I wrote was this kind of postmodern fiction thing that was kinda slightly shifted out of reality. So rather than having people playing Hearts or playing cards, I wanted something a bit more exotic,” Looney said.
“So I imagined this board game played with these little pyramid-shaped gaming pieces that you would play without a board, and without even taking turns. And the people who read the story were so taken by this that they ended up encouraging me to create a real game based off the imaginary game.”
Those pyramids — sometimes called “Icehouse pieces,” after the game that sired them — became Looney’s first breakout hit as a game designer. It’s not just that he created a game, but that he created an entire gaming system — more games using the basic pyramid pieces are being invented all the time, hundreds by Looney’s count.
“Because it is so unusual, it’s hard for people to get their brain around it, sometimes. It’s hard to sell people on the idea of a game system when they don’t have anything to compare it to,” he said. “The one thing I always compare it to is a regular deck of playing cards. Just as with regular playing cards you can play everything from Poker to Bridge to Go Fish to War to Crazy Eights to 52-card pickup to just building a house out of cards, so it is with the pyramids. Every kind of game is imaginable with those pyramids.”
The pyramid pieces are one of several success stories out of Looney Labs, the game company Looney founded with his wife Kristin. Continuing the mad scientist theme, the two met while working at NASA. Looney’s programming made it into space onboard the Hubble Space Telescope.
“You can look at my work and see the handwriting of a computer programmer all over it. The whole Fluxx engine is basically … my whole way of thinking about it is that human beings are kind of like the computer hardware that I program for now, and a deck of Fluxx cards is the software,” Looney said.
“It’s the instructions that the group will follow; it’s the code that they will step through. And, like a program, every error condition needs to be trapped and taken care of, all the possible ways that the game can run need to be accounted for and thought through, so everything is properly handled, so it doesn’t ‘crash.’”
Fluxx — billed as a card game with “ever-changing rules” — is far and away Looney Labs’ biggest hit, with nearly a dozen editions and variations of the game on the market. Like most of Looney’s products, the game’s rules take a bit of getting used to — but once you do, they become second nature and ridiculously entertaining.
“I love when I’m teaching it, and you see, you have that moment where you can see them, ‘Oh, I get it! I see!’ And some people get it just immediately, within the first couple hands of the first game, you have that ‘click’ moment. Other times, it takes people a couple games to really make sense to them, really wrap their brain around it. But then they’ll still have that moment of insight. And it’s just a joy to see people’s eyes kind of bulge open with that moment of discovery.”
Looney said that moment of discovery comes for him, as well. “I say I’m a game designer, because I design these things. But sometimes, I call myself a ‘game inventor’ because I have more of the vision of I’m out in the shed tinkering away at these inventions.
“But even that’s not quite right. Sometimes, I feel like I’m a discoverer. It’s just that these ideas are out there, and I’m the first one that makes the discovery of thinking, ‘Hey, guys! Look! If you can do this, you can play this game! It works like this!’”
For more information on Fluxx and the Looney Pyramids, visit www.looneylabs.com.